At first glance, cage fighting seems like a blunt form of self-expression—physically daunting men and women exchange blows in a relentless quest to emerge with consciousness and victory intact. But make no mistake about it, personality is nearly as important as the combat itself.
Fists may fly, but words almost always precede them.
As mixed martial arts continues to evolve, we've seen a startling rise in the number of fighters making a name outside of the caged battleground. Competitiveness for notoriety is at an all-time high at virtually every premier fight promotion. It's no surprise, then, that the most self-aware fighters have added depth and dimension to their public personas.
It wasn't always that way.
The nascent years of mixed martial arts were riddled with fighters who came and left with the wind. At UFC 4, Royce Gracie caught Keith Hackney in an armbar—we might all bestow reverence and respect to the former, but a brief web search is likely necessary to jog memory of the latter. In all fairness, Hackney was part of an entire era of fighters willing to test their mettle inside the Octagon in spite of the sport's virtually nonexistent public image.
Yet, even in the case of the initial greats, personality was a distant second to fight performance. Gracie's role as MMA's venerable forefather is surely the result of his ability to submit giants long before such skills were commonplace.
But imagine, if only for a moment, how much easier it would have been for earlier champions to build their identities with the countdown and prime-time specials that have now become all but ordinary.
The foremost female fighter on the planet, Ronda Rousey, is a case example of a talented athlete who's managed to properly soak in the limelight. Via MMAjunkie.com, UFC President Dana White signed the Olympic judoka because he envisions her as a potential crossover superstar:
She has the whole package. ... This girl is nasty. She might be beautiful on the outside, but she's a Diaz brother on the inside. She's a real fighter and real talented. She has the credentials and the pedigree. And she has the 'it' factor. I think she's going to be a big superstar.
Rousey's athletic success is undoubtedly the result of her cultivated skill set; there's little reason to doubt that. But the buzz around her Octagon debut was fueled by one of the strongest media pushes in modern MMA history—she was front and center for an unprecedented number of magazine spreads, televised countdown specials and interviews.
And she isn't magnetic solely because of her fighting prowess; a refusal to bite her tongue certainly helps. She learned at a swift pace that camera time is afforded to fighters with vibrant personalities, unwilling to toe the cliche line of "going in there to get the job done."
All signs indicate that Rousey's willingness to be brash and bold is working in her favor.
It's no surprise that she trains with, and is likely influenced by, the always-polarizing Nick Diaz. His name has the unusual capacity of eliciting either pure adoration or deep-seated hatred. A boxer with cardio for days, he didn't develop that type of public image solely through fighting.
Instead, Diaz's willingness to say what he wants and how he wants—even in the presence of Georges St. Pierre, MMA's golden boy—has gained the trust of fans who identify with him as being real. The Stockton native is always embroiled in a quarrel of some sort; fans pick up on the idea that it's constantly Diaz against the world. In that sense, he manages to turn heads with every action he takes, even if it's not necessarily by means of a great fight.
A discussion on MMA personalities wouldn't be complete without mention of Chael Sonnen, perhaps the most iconic example of how far wit, humor and verbal warfare can get you.
Don't get me wrong, he's a tremendous fighter. Before Chris Weidman separated Anderson Silva from his senses, Sonnen shocked the world by forcing the middleweight titan through five rounds of relentless assault. After failing to win the middleweight strap, Sonnen was ushered into a title shot against Jon Jones for light heavyweight gold.
Let's not pretend that it all happened because he's just that good.
He wasn't awarded back-to-back title shots because of his UFC resume—the opportunity arose because UFC brass were assured that Sonnen's loud mouth would draw even more impressive pay-per-view numbers.
The self-proclaimed "American Gangster" is a perpetual entertainer, and it's that reality that ensures his future success in the world of mixed martial arts.
Longevity is always a concern in combat sports—in Dana White's own words, via B/R's Trent Reinsmith, "This is a f--king short-term gig." The window of opportunity starts out slim and then begins to close as fighters accumulate unimaginable hours in the training gym along with sustained damage during their fights.
Gracie snapped up limbs in an era when top-tier fighters were few and far between. In the modern world of fighting, any man or woman in the UFC roster has the skills to win consistently. The race to the top has never been more heated. Given the odds of championship success, the goal post has shifted to a place more subtle and nuanced.
Powerful striking and slick submissions are more ubiquitous than ever before. Yet, as the sport continues to flourish, the stage for self-promotion continues to expand. The current generation of fighters have the ability to communicate directly with fans via social networks and to the media via written and video interviews.
When the cameras turn on and ears are opened, they had better say something memorable.
The most polarizing fighters have realized this and begun to embrace their identities as yet another tool to achieve a lasting effect. There's a vast divide in the timeline separating a fight announcement and the fight itself. Training is, for good reason, the best use of that time, though; perhaps, salesmanship should also come into play.
Fans need a catalyst for dishing out PPV dollars—if the skills between both fighters are truly equal, then it's the one with bolder character who often sells the fight. With more access than ever before, MMA diehards might hang on every word their chosen fighter says.
The spotlight will continue to be reserved for competitors with both the skills and personality to keep everyone interested.